My reactions to Richard Morgan's A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy—The Steel Remains (2008), The Cold Commands (2011), and now The Dark Defiles (2014)—are complicated. An ambiguous complexity characterises this trilogy, and particularly its final volume: throughout, with his trio of protagonists, Morgan has been interrogating the idea of heroism in, and the traditional narrative arc and structures of, epic fantasy. As Genevieve Valentine commented in her NPR review of the trilogy, it "casually straddles the lines between quest fantasy, political thriller and science fiction," while being "as grim and as dark as it gets."
It is that grim darkness that gives me complicated feelings. "Grimdark" is a shorthand in modern fantasy literature for a subgenre that values its gritty realism, and that attempts to overturn long-established heroic tropes. As much a locus for critical and definitional argument as anything else (eg: What counts as "realism"? Why are some tropes overturned and not others?), for me its defining characteristic lies in a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness's sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action—in terms of personal morality - as either impossible or futile. (I think it's a nihilism that many people find comforting: if everything is terrible and no moral decision can either be meaningful or have any lasting effect, then it rather absolves one from trying to make things better, doesn't it?)
Over the course of the trilogy, Morgan has at times veered close to this approach, particularly with his central protagonist, the swordsman and black mage Ringil Eskiath—a man who's an outcast from his home and family in the League of Trelayne due in no small part to his queerness. But The Dark Defiles is the trilogy's capstone, and the climax of each of its main characters' stories involves moral choice at the personal level. In the meaning of those choices, and in the (politically speaking, and with regard to one protagonist) open-ended conclusion, the narrative refuses nihilism and preserves an ambiguous potential for personal grace.
That makes it sound as though The Dark Defiles is a weighty philosophical tome. It's not, although it is engaged in a number of interesting thematic arguments about the nature of power and people who use it, the stories that are told about it, and the relationship between heroism and morality. Much, thematically, relies for its impact and emotional weight on mood and tone, on The Dark Defiles' more introspective moments—and for a novel that involves a bang-up amount of up-close-and-personal violence, it has its fair share of introspection.
As the conclusion to the trilogy, The Dark Defiles has a lot of work to do. This isn't a book that can be read out of order: its events and resolutions involve a several-thousand-years-ended war that pitted humans and the alien, immortal Kiriath against the dwenda—a half-unreal race, beautiful and terrible, that once ruled over humankind—and the much more recent political manoeuvrings of rival empires, the League of Trelayne and the Yhelteth Empire. The dwenda have been attempting to return from their millennia-old defeat, and Ringil's entanglements with them unfold over the course of The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands. He and his old comrades, the steppe-nomad clansman Egar Dragonsbane, and Archeth Indamaninarmal, half-Kiriath (and also the last Kiriath in the world) advisor to the Yhelteth emperor, have between them so far thwarted the dwenda's plans, and survived mortal politics and dangers. When The Dark Defiles opens, they're all still trying to do both—a long way from home, in the bleak Hironish Isles, where they're searching for the grave of a long-dead sorcerer and for the lost Kiriath city of An-Kirilnar, as part of an imperial expedition that hopes to turn a profit.
Circumstance and the clash of personalities have between them already turned the expedition sour. Their companions have their own goals, and are inclined to be at each other's throats. Ringil is itching for a fight, and both Archeth and Egar are wrestling with their own demons. Matters only grow worse when soldiers arrive from the League of Trelayne, with the news that the League and the Empire have gone to war. Separated from Ringil, Archeth and Egar are taken prisoner. Ringil is determined to get them back. Believing them to have been taken to the capital of Trelayne, under the control of a conspiracy headed by the supernatural dwenda, he sets out to rescue them—and if that means cutting his way through legions both mortal and supernatural, his attitude can be described pretty much as bring it on.
But neither Archeth nor Egar reached Trelayne. Instead, they were shipwrecked in in the Kiriath Wastes, an expanse of land that has been uninhabitable since the immortal Kiriath and their human allies fought and defeated the dwenda four thousand years before. The Kiriath were scientists and engineers, but apart from Archeth, they're gone from the world by the time the trilogy opens. Within Ringil's and Egar's lifetimes, they used their science to depart the world, leaving behind not only the half-human Archeth, but also some of their technology and the animate, constrained intelligences called "Helmsmen." Stranded in this desolate land, Archeth is forced to confront the fact that what she wants most in life is to be able to go home to her lover.
Fortunately, she and Egar stumble across An-Kirilnar by some quirk of fate, and the intelligence that animates the city—a Helmsman, but older and stranger than the Helmsmen that Archeth has interacted with before—sends them on a dangerous trek across the Wastes to where an aerial conveyance might be able to take them to within a survivable distance of home. While Ringil slaughters his way through men and dwenda to a supernatural showdown, Archeth's and Egar's concerns pit them against themselves as much as against opposing forces.
By any reasonable measure, this is a concluding volume that should not work as a conclusion. Its structure defies the usual forms of narrative catharsis and resolution, particularly in a story that has concerned itself with interrogating mythic-heroic arcs. The divided protagonists do not reunite, at the end, to fight one last battle or to fade into the sunset of their times. While each protagonist experiences an epic confrontation or two (and Ringil's confrontations involve straight-up showdowns with ancient inimical forces), the battles are, in fact, as much about the kind of people the protagonists are, or the kind of people they can choose to be, as they are about vanquishing threatening forces.
The ending is ambiguous, and can be read in terms of either tragedy or triumph, or both. It should not work. And yet it does, because the resolution we do get is sufficient to each character's arc of development. And because the ambiguity of The Dark Defiles' conclusion is very well-matched to the ambiguity of what has come before.
For ambiguity is, it seems to me, central to Morgan's project in this trilogy. Moral ambiguity and the ambiguity of the kind of heroism that involves killing people in large numbers. In many ways, The Dark Defiles and its predecessors are engaged in explicitly interrogating—explicitly deconstructing—the idea of the hero's journey that is common coinage in fantasy, and interrogating along with it the image of the chosen, or larger-than-life, hero itself. I find what Morgan is trying to do in terms of interrogating the myths and structures of epic fantasy deeply interesting: that he pulled it off while still managing a conclusion that scratches the epic itch is an admirable achievement.
The Dark Defiles provides a solid finish to a noteworthy trilogy.